In this new weekly column, Connected, one writer will send another a new piece of writing about a film they have been watching and pondering over, in the hopes that this will prompt a connection—emotional, thematic, historical, or analytical—to a different film the other has been watching or is inspired to rewatch. This ongoing column will be in the spirit of many past Reverse Shot symposiums, in which writers found connections between seemingly disparate cinematic works, and it will also help us maintain personal connection among our writers and our readers at this uncertain moment.

Defending Your Life

It doesn’t take a master shrink to figure out why I might be reaching for Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life at a time like this. Day upon day of solitary subsistence, self-reflection, and self-reckoning, and general futurelessness funnels quite naturally to mortal regrets and doubts, to thinking jags that systematically strip away each layer of one’s accumulated self, leaving one naked to the bone and alone at night with only themost mortifying memories as a duvet, and maybe, if one’s lucky, terrestrial television, with its balmy reruns and corporeally grounding catheter commercials, as an intervening sheet. The days are a double helix of coping and disemboweling.

Defending Your Life came out when I was in high school, which means I was old enough to understand what was at stake, to have experienced regret and anxiety, but not old enough to have accumulated a U-Haul’s worth of the stuff. Nevertheless I’ve carried the concept of the film with me since that spring 1991 viewing at Staten Island’s UA Theaters—at the western edge of Victory Boulevard, across the S.I. Expressway from the racket ball and tennis facility deftly named “Courts of Appeals,” and adjacent to the then still-active and very pungent world famous Fresh Kills Landfill. I’ve no doubt the film was on my mind a few months later when, after an opening night viewing of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the same theater, I sped my grey-blue Bonneville down the wrong side of an empty Victory Boulevard, mid-dispute with my best (and, miraculously, current) friend, threatening (promising?) to direct us into a telephone pole. We were miserably unhappy young men, prone to these outbursts and threats, and thankfully our third friend, who was slightly less miserable—or at least seemed to be—shouted “I want to live!” from the backseat, jerking us back to our senses, resulting in laughter and apologies and a false sense that we wouldn’t be thinking about that moment for the rest of our lives. It’s one of a dozen or two moments that I can still play back in my mind like a scene from a film, forensically rewinding and replaying, an impulse that Albert Brooks brilliantly nails with Defending Your Life.

In the film, he plays Daniel Miller, an ad exec whose demise at the wheel of a brand new car triggers five days in Judgment City, where he’s charged with reviewing nine scenes from his life, in the company of attorneys (Rip Torn and Lee Grant!) and judges—it’s not a trial, they reassure him, but it’s obviously a trial—to determine whether he’s advanced enough to move ahead to a higher plane. Shown in courtrooms that double as screening rooms, the scenes that Daniel revisits aren’t distinctive, they’re actually quite generic—being taunted by bullies and not responding, witnessing parents fighting, experiencing stage fright at a big public speaking event—but that’s partly the point. That they haunt Daniel is more important than whether they’re objectively egregious or consequential. That they’re more representative than specific actually allows us, as viewers, to replace his memories with our own.

Revisiting the film now, it’s newly apparent how generously Brooks treats Daniel, whose whole existence in Judgment City is pitched toward an inevitably dissatisfying judgment. The goal of human life on earth, as posited by the film, is to transcend our fears, to act with bravery and behave with a sense of serene selflessness, which of course he fails to live up to, which of course we all do. Brooks is a master at creating protagonists who are relatable shitheads, endearing minor-key sociopaths, essentially liberal American males who want life to mean something but also want what’s owed to them. Yet between Daniel’s generic memories and the brief opening scenes on the day of his death (also his birthday), Brooks gives us very little reason to dislike or distance ourselves from him. He spends basically no time bemoaning his lost life, and instead adjusts the best he can to the purgatorial state of things in Judgment City, realized by production designer Ida Random and captured by the great cinematographer Allen Daviau—who tragically died just this week from COVID-19—as a mildly creepy amusement park ride version of Los Angeles, complete with a tram-exclusive transportation system, insouciant eau de office park, and all-you-can-eat restaurants (which Daviau never fails to punctuate with close-ups of very ordinary looking, if heaping, plates of food). Almost immediately Daniel falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), an evidently more advanced human (or former human) who nevertheless falls immediately in love with him in turn. It’s the kind of impossible, wish-fulfilling male fantasy that dominates romantic comedies, except it’s positioned literally within a fantastical realm.

The film puts Daniel in a place where he’s destined to fail, accounting for the fact that he lived as a flawed, fearful human being. To wish for his demise or condemnation is to judge myself in the same light, and while that’s my strong natural tendency, Brooks’s film instills empathy on at least the level of universal human fallacy. Julia’s destined for a better place: the scene in which Daniel walks into her courtroom to find the lawyers and judges mooning over footage of her saving her children and the family cat from a house fire is low-key the funniest in the film, sold by a beaming Streep curling up in her hot-seat like she’s watching an old Hollywood musical. But she’s also attracted to the human-ness of Daniel. Their relationship, improbably forged over a few evening strolls (though rhyming economically well with other silver screen meet-cute romances), is intentionally elemental. Daniel isn’t special, in fact he’s aggressively not special, and while Julia obviously is special, she doesn’t seem to be saddled by notions of who this object of her infatuation could or should be. She’s a subordinate character, but her motivations and emotions remain open to inquiry. My read is that, freed from existences in which she was inevitably frustrated by partners who couldn’t live up to their potential, the afterlife affords elective adoration; and in turn, Daniel’s own inadequacies, actual or perceived, are less of a roadblock to adoring her in turn—he’s offering less self-sabotaging resistance to their magnetic pull.

Eventually, at least. That he only uses 3% of his brain, rather than the attorneys, who all use somewhere between 46-53% of theirs, is a joke on Daniel, except the reality is that every person watching the film is in the same boat, will only ever be in that boat. We can sit in our silos and expect better of ourselves, and some regret can lead to better decisions going forward, but we can’t expect the impossible. The scenes we carry we’ll always carry. They’re often not pretty, but we’re less ourselves without them, regardless of what we make of them. Daniel’s last line in his defense, which rings hollow in the courtroom, sounds, well, more defensible from our current vantage. “I’ll do the best that I can.” —Eric Hynes

The Lusty Men

Eric, I really relate to that hermetic sense of psychological panic you describe. There’s no chance of conventional mental peace in this isolating maelstrom of dread, so on my end, it’s been a strange few weeks of “viewing,” when I’m able to focus. I tend to narcotize the inner monologue with comedy—and coincidentally enough, that rotation has included Albert Brooks’s concept album A Star Is Bought. But when I break away from the likes of Todd Barry’s horrifyingly shot hand soap tutorials, I’m pretty simplistically longing for open spaces, and with it, the bigness that you’d sink into in a movie theater. That’s all pulled me back to a mid-century American melancholy that I’ve always found therapeutic, whether the lost 1970s Los Angeles that Eve Babitz limns out in the stories of Slow Days, Fast Company, or the forebodingly scaled CinemaScope tableaux in Bad Day at Black Rock, or the nightmarish fictional Mojave in Rick Alverson’s Monte Hellman–indebted Entertainment.

So what you’re saying about wanting life to mean something while tacitly hoping for some kind of payoff, which Brooks embodies with such pathos, makes me think about having recently pressed play on Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men. I don’t think anyone is better than Ray when it comes to the roiling existential internals—even at his most maximalist, he lets angst breathe in a way that invites us closer to his characters. Much of that intimacy, and dare I say relatability, comes from just how fundamental their desires are, even beyond a fierce, period-appropriate tussle with social conformity. It’s a stunning bit of exposition to watch Robert Mitchum’s Jeff McCloud, reduced to a pinprick within a wide shot of a deserted rodeo arena, solitarily make his way back to a nondescript rundown shack, crawl through the cobwebs underneath, and unearth the few toys, a gun and a cowboy magazine, that remain from his childhood. In a minute, he moves from the inciting accident that ends his rodeoing career to the naïve beginnings of it all, and cuts a chasm between what was yet to take place and what’s since come to pass.

This film is a taut triangle of personalities and wants: McCloud, out of the rodeo game after paying the price of a few ribs, becomes entangled with a married couple (Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy) with dreams of owning their own ranch, who are saving up to buy McCloud’s old home. But when Kennedy’s Wes gets a taste for the adrenaline rush, masculine glory, and quick cash of rodeoing, he enlists McCloud as his coach and offers him a 50 percent cut of his earnings. This is all much to the chagrin of Hayward’s Louise, who manages the household finances and longs for a stable, safe, ordinary life—which, for a movie so preoccupied with impossible masculine ideals, is a dream that doesn’t feel condescended to, which makes it all the more harrowing. Louise is in too deep when Wes loses himself to his ego and the momentary escapist highs, and anxiously frets—knows—that his luck could run out in an instant. (Footage of actual rodeo spills certainly raise the stakes, and Ray gives no illusions of lasting glory—Wes’s triumphant bull ridings pass at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clip.) Meanwhile, McCloud experiences a similar pining for steadiness as an attraction quietly builds for Louise, and as the rodeo tour progresses, they both watch Wes succumb to heavy drinking and womanizing.

For all the melodrama of these plot crescendos, they seem a natural defense against a life with no guarantees. Otherwise, the world is quietly banal, which turns those gestures into perennial flailings—that futility of grasping what’s out of reach, or living up to the what-ifs.The entire cycle couldn’t be more instinctual. When Jacques Rivette wrote on the film in 1953 for Cahiers du cinéma (sigh), he saw that Ray’s eye for ordinary detail led him to channel an exquisite anxiety rooted in “paroxysm, which imparts something of the feverish and impermanent to the most tranquil of moments.” It’s a chill born of panic, out of nowhere, that everything is wrong, and the accompanying, desperate fumbling for a redemptive way out. It’s human nature as a struggle against a lack of control. There’s something earnest, with a twist, of that type of denial in Brooks’s comedy—I also feel it in Lost in America and Modern Romance—and I think you’re right that it’s only human to own it on some level, which is most likely painful or cringe-y (at least, those moods make up the nine scenes I replay in my head). There’s no other way. By that token, though, it makes me feel a little less remote to watch people strain against it all the same. —Chloe Lizotte